There’s a lot of scary moments in the 1978 horror classic Halloween, but to me the most scary doesn’t involve Michael Myers. In the third act, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has discovered the murdered bodies of her friends in the house across the street from the one where she’s babysitting. She’s also been attacked and fleeing from Michael, or The Shape, as he’s referred to in the credits.
Laurie does what any rational and logical person does. She seeks help from the closest person. She runs next door to a house, screaming for help and knocking or really banging on the door. The lights come on. Someone looks out the window. Then, the lights turn off again. The people don’t want to get involved. Whatever is happening outside their house, they want to keep it that way.
Two weeks ago, a woman was reportedly raped on a commuter train in the Philadelphia area as people witnessed it but no one did anything. The legend surrounding the murder of Kitty Genovese have been wildly exaggerated but it became a classic example of the “Bystander Effect,” that people generally won’t help when they see people in trouble. On March 15, 1982, actress Theresa Saldana who had appeared in Raging Bull had been stabbed by her stalker, Arthur Richard Jackson, while others reportedly stood around and watched. Jeff Fenn, a deliveryman heard the screams from a second-floor apartment building and rushed outside to stop Jackson. He later commented that others weren’t doing much and that made him more angry.
Halloween is set mostly in the fictional town of Haddonfield, Ill. But it’s a representation of small-town America in the Midwest, the suburbs where kids walk to and from school. One of my biggest pet peeves of true-crime docuseries is when someone says something like, “Nothing bad ever happened here” or “We would never lock our doors.” But this is a bunch of bullshit. Crime exists in small towns and you better lock your doors at night or else.
I live out in the country. There is a long walk from the road to my front porch. I can hear people walking on the ramp. I can look out the window and see people when they pull in. I’m a big guy. I have four loaded firearms all through my house. And even I lock the doors.
I think what John Carpenter and Debra Hill were getting at during making this movie was to show how vulnerable small-towns and suburbia were. We associate more populated areas as crime-ridden. Urban has become a bad word in referring to acts of crime. But as a small-town journalist for 10 years, let me tell you crime happens depending on the people. Both Carpenter and Hill were raised in the post-WWII era, where White Flight became more common as people moved to the smaller towns to raise families. But they brought the problems with them.
The northwestern region of Georgia I grew up in is now infamous with a lot of crystal meth activity. They’re rural. They’re the suburbs and small-town America. What’s ironic is the closer you get to the Metro Atlanta area, the more safe you feel. My brother and brother-in-law live in a nice Atlanta suburb. The traffic might be an issue, but I feel safer stopping at the QuikTrip there for gas and food than at the gas stations farther north.
I think it’s telling the tagline to Halloween is “The night he came home.” Who is Michael Myers? He’s evil. But he is also representative of America’s problem. The movie opens with Michael, only 6, stabbing his teenage sister, Judith, to death. At 21, Michael manages to escape the mental hospital he’s been staying at and drive back to Haddonfield. The fact we see so little of The Shape throughout the first part is a great directing job by Carpenter. We know he’s always there when we don’t see him.
And it’s more telling that Michael’s actions take place mostly in houses and buildings. A lot of crime happens behind closed doors. Most towns only have a relatively small law enforcement force to compare to the town population. Say a community with 10,000 population will only have maybe two dozen officers, including reserve officers. They may have less than that.
About 10 years ago, we noticed some people were trying to break into cars at night and my neighbor’s houses when they were gone. The sheriff’s office was called but since nothing appeared stolen, they would try to get out as soon as they could. We were told only three or four deputies work each shift for a county that has well over 45,000 in population. That’s one deputy for every 15,000 person. We’re not really safe. We just have the illusion of safety.
When Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) is bullied after school, no one comes to stop him. It is The Shape who watches him but doesn’t do anything either, except give Tommy’s bully Lonnie Elam (Brent Le Page) a scare. Later when Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers) is standing outside a burglary at a store, he tells his daughter, Annie (Nancy Kyes), it’s probably just kids since only a mask and some knives were stolen.
When Michael’s doctor, Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasance) tries to get Brackett to understand, the sheriff still passes things off as harmless Halloween fun with young kids Loomis knows what Michael is and what danger he will unleash. At the same time, the Myers house where the events of the beginning took place have become a spooky legend around town as Lonnie and his friends hang around the house to show how “tough” they are, but Tommy doesn’t want to go near it.
There’s a Myers house in every town in America. During a scene with a cemetery caretaker, Loomis goes to visit Judith’s grave and the caretaker begins a story about what we think is a man who killed his family, but Loomis interrupts and he never finishes. There’s no need for him to finish. We know the story. Like I said in my previous post about The ‘Burbs, towns have their dark secrets. Michael is that dark secret.
That is why I think the movie has remained a classic 43 years later. It still manages to conjure up images of all the Michael Myers we know. I went to school with four people who later killed other people. One of them I once considered a friend was convicted of brutally killing two women. It surprised me. Another woman who was the daughter of a pastor was brutally bludgeoned to death by her husband, his mistress, her ex-husband, and another in a murder case that still boggles many of us who knew her.
It’s very deep for a movie that originally was intended to just be a cheap exploitation drive-in theater movie. Carpenter had been making his name with a couple of movies, when approached by film producer Irwin Yablans and financier Moustapha Akkad after they had seen Assault on Precinct 13. They wanted him to make a cheap movie about a psychotic killer who stalks babysitters. Carpenter and Hill, who was his girlfriend, banged out a script. She produced it.
The movie was filmed fast and cheap in about four weeks in the spring of 1978 in southern California. The infamous point-of-view opening scene where Michael stabs Judith was inspired by the 1974 movie Black Christmas. Everyone included Curtis worked non-stop to make the dilapidated house look presentable. Curtis later referred to the production as “guerilla filmmaking.” Dean Cundey was one of the first cinematographers to use a steady-cam for that scene. Hill’s hands were use in place for Michael as Hill was a small woman and had smaller hands resembling a child’s. A lot of people say the tracking shot was what made it more of a movie and I agree.
It might have been made cheap and there are a lot of flubs. You can see the cigarette smoke from Carpenter and Hill, who are standing off camera. The interior of the house where Annie is babysitting doesn’t match up with the exterior as there’s a secret room that just isn’t possible. But Curtis and the rest of the cast make up for it. You can sense that Curtis, even though the parents of two major stars, was your average small-town teenage girl. The way her and Annie talk about boys and how Laurie lets it slip she’s attracted to one guy is so authentic it should be used in acting classes.
Pleasance makes Loomis seem almost as crazy and irrational as the man he’s chasing. There’s something about how Pleasance almost seems to lurk as Loomis the same way The Shape does. The Shape, played mostly by Nick Castle, one of Carpenter’s friends and colleagues, was reportedly play $25 a day and his body motion set the standard for all masked killers in the slasher movies to come. Castle was remembered by everyone on the set as being the guy you’d want to have a Dr. Pepper with as he was jovial and a cut-up on scene. During a scene where he has to strangle Lynda (P.J. Soles) with a telephone cord, he was so worried about hurting her, he just barely moved it along her neck, tickling her. Soles said she began to giggle but suddenly started gagging not to ruin the take.
In another scene where the Shape stabs Lynda’s boyfriend, Bob (John Michael Graham), on a wall, he tilts his head looking at it. There’s a creepiness almost like a master admiring his work but an innocence as he looks at what he just did. They used lighting techniques and camera shots to make the movie look more violent than it actually is as there’s not much blood on the screen. Bob’s lifeless feet or Annie’s body slumping down in a seat behind fog-covered windshield from The Shape’s breathing add more horror to the movie.
When released in late October of 1978, the reviews weren’t too kind. One critic called it “a turkey for Thanskgiving.” However The Village Voice and critic Roger Ebert praised it as it packed theaters, becoming the most profitable independent movie of its time until The Blair Witch Project. And it also spawned many imitators throughout the 1980s with only a few achieving what Halloween did.